Tu B'Shvat: Celebrating Pleasure
God wants to give us the greatest of all pleasures--enjoying nature as a bridge to the divine.
The celebration of Tu B'Shvat--the 15th of the month of Shvat on the Hebrew calendar--is not mentioned in the Bible. The oldest reference is found in the Talmud, where Tu B'Shvat is called "the new year of the trees." The Talmud ascribes significance to this date only in terms of the legal implications of taking tithes (10%) from fruits. However, about 500 years ago, the Kabbalists revealed the deeper meaning of Tu B’Shvat. They taught that Tu B’Shvat is an opportune time for fixing the transgression of Adam and Eve. Amazingly, just through the simple act of eating fruit during the Tu B’Shvat festive dinner, we are able to contribute to this cosmic repair.
The Torah says that God put Adam and Eve in the garden “to work it and to guard it.” The Jewish oral tradition teaches us that this refers to the do’s and don’ts of the Torah. The do’s are called the positive mitzvot and the don’ts are called the negative mitzvot. Adam and Eve were given very little to do: eat from all the trees of the garden. And their only don’t—their single prohibition—was not to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. What was that about?
The Torah teaches that God created the world so that we could experience goodness in general, and His goodness in particular. Experiencing His goodness—bonding with God—is the greatest joy imaginable. God empowers us to bond with Him by serving His purpose for creation. Just as when we do for others, we feel connected to them, so, too, serving God enables us to bond with Him. Ironically, serving God is actually self-serving—profoundly fulfilling and pleasurable.
If we eat and enjoy the fruits of this world for God’s sake—because this is what He asks of us—then we are actually serving God and bonding with Him. We serve God by acknowledging that the fruits of this world are His gifts to us and by willfully accepting and enjoying those gifts.
The root of Jewish life is, in fact, enjoyment—the pleasure of connecting to God. We connect to God by serving Him, and this means obeying His command to enjoy the fruits of this world.
While in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve’s entire obligation was to enjoy all the lush fruits—with the notable exception of one forbidden fruit. Sure enough, they went after that one. This misdeed demonstrated their confused orientation to the real meaning of pleasure. Rather than seeing the fruits as pleasurable because they are God’s gifts and enjoying them as part of their service to God, they wanted to partake of them independently of God—in fact, contrary to His will.
The Art of Receiving
As already explained, real pleasure is experiencing a connection with God. We enjoy the ultimate spiritual
pleasure when we enjoy the physical pleasures of this world as part of our divine service. Then, the act of receiving and enjoying God’s gifts to us is amazingly transformed into a selfless act of serving God.
We can understand now that God’s only desire in giving Adam and Eve those two mitzvot was to give them the ultimate pleasure—bonding with Him. True pleasure was not in the taste of the fruits, but in eating and enjoying these gifts from God. This was the way to serve and connect with Him—the Ultimate Pleasure.
But Adam and Eve misunderstood this. They did not see physical pleasure as a conduit to the spiritual pleasure of bonding with God. Rather, they sought pleasure independent of God.
This is the root of all wrongdoing. Do we see the pleasures of this world as a gift from God, enjoying them in the service of God, and using them as conduits to a connection to God? Or, do we seek pleasure independent of any connection to God? In other words, is the pleasure about us, or is the pleasure about our relationship with God?